For the greater part of his life, Seth Steinzor has been enraptured by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. He loved, among other things, the “vivid sensory images, powerful spirituality (and) wicked humor”. To communicate the powerful effect Dante had on him, Steinzor “undertook to rewrite the Comedy as if it had happened to [him]; not as a translation or as an adaptation, but as [his] own experience.” Thus was born To Join the Lost, a modern telling of The Inferno, the first part of Dante’s classic work.
Where Dante was led through hell by the Roman poet Virgil, Steinzor has as his guide none other than Dante himself. This is a clever device that allows comment on the original story and changes Steinzor has made. As Dante observes to him: “But here, where all is lost, the more it changes, the more it’s the same.”
Although human nature remains the same, there are, of course, societal differences between Dante’s world of 1300 and Steinzor’s twenty-first century reality. To the procurers and seducers of Dante’s eighth circle are joined “your porno movie makers; ad execs who swore by the creed, sex sells; (…) wife beaters;“and so on.
Although many will agree that many of the groups Steinzor now incorporates into hell (Wall Street raiders, real estate developers) should indeed be there, some will no doubt take exception to individuals that he includes: Gandhi, Mohammed, and Thomas Jefferson among others. I’m sure that there were those who objected in Dante’s day, to his version. Not all of the individuals are immediately recognizable and many references sent me to Wikipedia, but Dante himself must be approached, as Steinzor says: “though dense encrustations of footnotes”, so I have no complaint with that.
In some cases, I thought the people included in certain areas didn’t reflect Dante’s reasoning at all, but a perspective that is clearly the author’s. Because Steinzor did not just update Dante’s vision: he experienced his own version of the inferno. Some of that change is wrought by differences in both religious outlook & nationality of the two narrators: Dante being a devout Florentine Catholic and Steinzor, a self-admitted ‘agnostic-Jewish-Buddhist-American’.
For example, Steinzor finds Limbo uninhabited.
“Where are all the souls you wrote
you saw here – the virtuous pagans?” I asked (…)”
Flown,” he said, “released by your
‘uncertain disbelief,’ I’ll call it,
from the suspense in which my certainties hung them.”
Satan himself is portrayed as a Disney World version of the Wizard of Oz, located in a silo shaped container at the center of hell:modeled
upon the humble agricultural/
and military storage facilities/ that
dot America’s heartland/ reminding
awestruck visitors/ that the seeds of the past are
missiles aimed at the future (…)
Indeed, Satan now has office hours (9-5 weekdays), a reception area that presents a promotional film, and a souvenir stand. Notably, Satan is absent during Steinzor’s visit. Truly, one wonders how hell itself exists in Steinzor’s reality, given his religious ambiguity.
The author has also retained the ‘wicked humor’ of his mentor. We can clearly see Dante rolling his eyes in this passage: A face,
distorted with rage, rose near us, howling hate.
My guide glancing down, then up to the clouds, said,
Filippo Argenti, you won’t have me this time,
Where the book is most touching though, is when Steinzor relates his own life experiences: the friend who committed suicide, or his grandparents’ sad lost dreams. The 19 line ‘story’ of the sexual pervert who approached him in a public shower in his teens left me with my mouth open in horror, sympathy and revulsion.
At the heart of To Join the Lost is the poetry. I believe this work is presented in 10 line stanzas of free verse. This is not necessarily an easy form to work. As T. S. Eliot observed, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” I believe Steinzor has done just that.
Steinzor’s words flow and many of his metaphors are breathtaking and sometimes powerfully precise.
Soon I was treading on a trail of my tears,
dark grey dots on lighter grey.
What does it take to achieve the status of a Dante? Perhaps 700 years of posterity. Steinzor, of course, does not have that. But I do hope that readers will look beyond their personal opinions of the inhabitants of his hell and recognize the beauty in this writing that has indeed presented this trip through the Inferno as if it had happened to the present-day author.
Seth Steinzor’s website: To Join the Lost
TLC Book Tours site for To Join the Lost: November Tour
Thank you to the author and TLC Book Tours for sending me this review copy.